As flagged by Will Jones here on the Daily Sceptic, a recent Lancet study shows that asymptomatic people are only responsible for a small fraction of SARS-CoV-2 viral emissions, thus exploding the myth of extensive asymptomatic transmission, which was one of the central tenets of the COVID-19 response. But what about the original ‘asymptomatic spreader’ whose case was widely reported in the medical literature and the international media? Well, it turns out she was precisely not asymptomatic. She was sick and took medication.
On January 30th 2020, the New England Journal of Medicine published a letter from a group of German doctors and scientists documenting the case of a Chinese businesswoman from Shanghai who had recently travelled to Germany, where she was at the origin of Germany’s first cluster of infections despite the fact that she had not yet developed symptoms herself. See the below screen shot from the NEJM homepage circa the following day (courtesy of the Wayback Machine).
The lead author of the letter was Camilla Rothe of the Munich University Hospital. One of the co-authors was none other than Christian Drosten, the Chair of the Department of Virology at the Charité teaching hospital in Berlin, whose famous PCR-protocol would become the ‘gold standard’ for COVID-19 testing. Drosten’s article laying out the PCR protocol was published just one week earlier, on January 23rd, by the EU-funded journal Eurosurveillance, following a peer-review in record-breaking time of roughly 24 hours.
But the problem with the German researchers’ letter is that just four days later, on February 3rd, Science published an article revealing, based on official German sources, that the Chinese businesswoman did in fact have symptoms and had taken paracetamol to combat them. In fact, none of the 17 authors of the NEJM letter had ever even spoken to the supposedly asymptomatic ‘patient zero’, merely relying on the input of the four Germans who fell ill (and, incidentally, very quickly got better).
“Afterwards, however,” the Science article notes,
officials at the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Germany’s federal public health agency, and the Health and Food Safety Authority of the state of Bavaria did talk to the Shanghai patient on the phone, and it turned out she did have symptoms while in Germany. According to people familiar with the call, she felt tired, suffered from muscle pain, and took paracetamol, a fever-lowering medication. (An RKI spokesperson would only confirm to Science that the woman had symptoms.)
As will be seen momentarily, the authors have in the meanwhile themselves confirmed that the woman took paracetamol.
Contacted by Science, Christian Drosten, who reportedly himself conducted the PCR-testing for the German group, was contrite. “I feel bad about how this went, but I don’t think anybody is at fault here,” he said, “Apparently the woman could not be reached at first and people felt this had to be communicated quickly.”
The Swedish Public Health Agency, as cited by Science, was less charitable in its assessment, describing the NEJM letter as containing “major flaws and errors”.
Nonetheless, despite the criticism and the apparent contrition of Drosten and one other author who was also contacted, the NEJM letter has not been retracted. It remains on the NEJM website here with the original full title: ‘Transmission of 2019-nCoV Infection from an Asymptomatic Contact in Germany.’ As of this writing, according to the NEJM’s own count, it has been cited in the scholarly literature no less than 2527 times.
The article is not even accompanied by a correction. In the aftermath of the Science revelations, the authors merely added a supplementary appendix comprising a “timeline” of the evolution of the woman’s illness. Apparently, in the meanwhile, they had resolved to speak with the woman themselves. The “timeline” concedes that she had experienced symptoms in Germany and that she had taken paracetamol, but insists that she only reported doing so once and somehow prophylactically.
The German public health authority, the Robert Koch Institute, apparently being caught off-guard by the Science revelations, displayed similarly erratic behaviour in response. Whereas a spokesperson initially told Science that the RKI itself had sent a letter to the NEJM informing the journal of the authors’ error, a different spokesperson, as noted in a July update to the article, subsequently retracted this claim, saying that the letter “had never been sent” and that there had been “an internal misunderstanding”.
Even if the asymptomatic ‘patient zero’ turned out in fact to be symptomatic, the German Government, at any rate, has not wavered in its support for Rothe and her colleagues. Thus, on September 30th 2022, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier awarded the German Order of Merit to none other than Claudia Rothe precisely for her NEJM article.
The tribute read out at the ceremony explained:
On January 27th 2020, the doctor [Rothe] diagnosed the first Corona infection in Germany. In doing so, she realised that the source of the infection was a person who at that time did not have any symptoms. She promptly published this discovery… The publication triggered a worldwide scientific dispute, at the end of which her findings were confirmed. Her early warning and her courage to stand by her finding made an important contribution to containing the Corona pandemic in the first phase. (author’s translation)
The identity of the Chinese ‘patient zero’ and of her German colleagues is also of some interest. They were in fact all employees of the German auto parts manufacturer Webasto. Although the Chinese employee was reported to be from Shanghai, Webasto had just recently, on September 7th 2019, opened a production facility in Wuhan.
As discussed in my earlier article, none other than then German Chancellor Angela Merkel was visiting Wuhan on that very day. In Wuhan, she stopped by the Tongji-Medical-College-affiliated Tongji Hospital: Tongji Medical College is the Chinese co-sponsor of a joint German-Chinese virology lab located in the city.
Chancellor Merkel was also on hand for the ceremonial opening of Webasto’s new facility, as documented in the below photo.